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My apologies in advance for asking such a trivial question. My concerns may not be as urgent or serious as some of the others on here, but I have been worrying about this for some time now.

My life since starting my PhD has can typically be summed up as waking up early, getting to the office about 7AM and working on some part of my research until 5PM before going home to study some more theory. I adore my field - I really think I'm the luckiest person ever for having the opportunity to work on such interesting problems.

However, I often get comments about my work-life balance being unhealthy. People often tell me to get a hobby that isn't related to physics or mathematics. In fact, a friend even brought me evidence that the vast majority of highly successful scientists, including my scientific heroes, have had a creative hobby.

I've honestly tried to maintain a hobby but I keep getting pulled back into my old routine. The progression typically goes like this:

  • I start a hobby, say drawing.
  • I draw consistently for a week or two. I even buy a course book for drawing and work through it. I'm making progress, all is great.
  • By the third week, I'm plagued with thoughts that slowly erode my motivation to draw. Thoughts about how I could be studying complex analysis, or working on that atomic configuration generation code...
  • By week four I've forgotten that I was trying to draw in the first place and am now back to the old routine.

Yet, as my friends point out, the evidence really is against me here. A lot of successful scientists do have hobbies outside of their work. It strikes me that the problem might be a bit more deep-seated: it may just be that I've developed a very unhealthy work ethic that'll cause me to crash and burn down the line.

As academics, how important would you consider hobbies as a part of your lifestyle? Would you consider the cultivation of a field completely unrelated to your own to be an essential component to an academic career - or, as my eloquent colleague puts it, being human in general?

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    Note: A hobby shouldn't be taken forcefully and as though it's a second job! – Massimo Ortolano Aug 6 at 15:46
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    Second note: If it's getting more stressful to have the hobby than not to, it's really not worth it, however interesting that hobby is. – Magicsowon Aug 6 at 17:28
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    I'm curious, how long has this situation been the case? – Trusly Aug 6 at 18:16
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    Is there any job where work life balance isn't important? – Azor Ahai -him- Aug 7 at 2:33
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    @Magicsowon: Obviously if OP keeps their 10h work day plus studying in the evening, adding a hobby will make it even more stressful. You probably shouldn’t force yourself to pointlessly pursue a hobby, but if you don’t have any time for hobbies at all it’s only a matter of time until you burn out. – Michael Aug 7 at 8:50

15 Answers 15

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It is very important that work-life balance be available to people who need it. Most PhD students and most scientists need some form of balance but exact needs vary.

You are not obligated to adopt someone else's idea of balance. There is no evidence that what works for other people will work for you.

Healthy diet and exercise are strongly correlated with better health and longer lifespan. There is very likely a causal relationship there. But I don't think that's what you were asking.

Would you consider the cultivation of a field completely unrelated to your own to be an essential component to an academic career?

No. Common, normal, and fair, but not necessarily essential.

being human in general?

That's more of a religious question than an academic question.

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    > That's more of a religious question than an academic question. Spiritual or philosophical, more than religious, really... in any case, fair advice, definitely expresses in the manner of a physicist! – Noldorin Aug 6 at 20:21
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    Actually, not particularly religious, spiritual, or philosophical. Just.... human. – Lee Mosher Aug 6 at 23:22
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    -1 for your last answer. Personally I would answer that part with your first part, since it's all one question ... – spacetyper Aug 7 at 0:54
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Yes, maintaining a work-life balance is important. But what the balance entails changes from person to person, and from day to day. The questions below may serve as prompt to facilitate the balancing.

Do you think you have a good grasp on how you are doing in general, emotionally and in terms of your energy level and motivation? Or can't you even tell? How often do you feel exhausted or tired? How often do you feel lonely or down? How is your sleep? Do you mostly enjoy what you do? Do you feel what you do has a purpose?

When it comes to hobbies, I noted that your approach seems rather solitary, cerebral, and goal-oriented: Learn something, using a book, with a specific outcome. Perhaps you might consider something more physical, more social, and more intrinsically enjoyable as counterbalance. For example dancing, team sports, bird watching, hiking, playing music in a band, (urban) gardening etc.

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    +1 for your last paragraph. But note that there is no obligation for social activities either, even though they will be important for most people (being part of the 8 essential aspects of well-being, as in "relationships" and "giving back"). – cheersmate Aug 7 at 6:02
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If you're happy and well-adjusted by your own yardstick, I think you're doing fine.

The only dark cloud I see is that your life and work as a grad student will change after graduation. For example, if you follow an academic career path, you will have to face that in the future it is likely your students who will be doing the really fun work! While many professors keep a foot in the lab or what have you, a professor's main job typically isn't doing bench work (or the theoretical/computational equivalent). Their job is primarily to keep the ideas & money flowing, and support students' learning and careers (and of course teach courses now & then!).

If you really have no interests beyond your research work, you may find that transition from foot-soldier to admin difficult. Difficulties may also arise when you face inevitable rockiness in the career side of things (a difficult project getting stalled, a dry spell in grant funding, etc.), a larger outside-of-work social support system or hobby may help keep you on an even keel.

But ultimately what is "normal" or "healthy" depends on whether it's healthy for you. For example, if things are going great now, why bother to change? But just recognize that if in the future things no longer feel healthy, it's okay to pick up a hobby at that time with no regrets.

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    In mathematics that complete transition to administration is much less common. You can easily keep spending most of your research time actually doing research. – Arno Aug 6 at 9:49
  • @Arno good point, i believe the same is true in the humanities. – roger-reject Aug 6 at 10:22
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    While it may be true that more senior people stay more hands on in reasearch in experimental subjects, for all academics, an increase in seniority mean an increase in time spent teaching and doing admin for the department. The typical academic contract is famously 40% reserach (either doing it or supervising it), 40% teaching and 20% service/administration) – Ian Sudbery Aug 6 at 10:57
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    The flip side of this comment is that there is unlikely to be another time in your career when you'll be as free to concentrate on your research as your are now, and there might be some value in taking advantage of that. – Ian Sudbery Aug 6 at 10:58
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    One other thing to watch out is burnout. Doing long hours is often not sustainable. Also, sometimes the benefit of a break or vacation is felt after taking it. – hojusaram Aug 7 at 15:19
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There is no obligation for you to have a hobby. If you don't want to draw, then don't draw. If you want to study complex analysis in every spare hour you have, then by all means do so. You are an adult and free to do as you will with your time.

Yes, work life balance is very important to many PhD students. They have a tendency to mismanage their own time and overemphasize the volume rather than quality of their work. Volume of course is easy to measure, you can "work" 14 hour days and feel secure that you are doing everything you ought to for the sake of your own success. Whereas judging the impact of the work is much harder and comes with experience, so it is tempting to overlook the importance of that one hour that was worth 1400.

However, clinging to volume like a safety blanket is not harmless. People get tired as they become fatigued and their productivity can drop dramatically (especially in knowledge work like a PhD). There is a risk of becoming bored with your project and incurring substantial delays as a result. It can be bad for mental health and depress people. Having too much work can interfere with basic personal upkeep like paying bills, staying on top of paperwork, housekeeping, and so on which then lead to more distractions from research. This is why people talk about the importance of having work life balance as a PhD student.

From what you said in your post, you are clearly happy with spending all your time working, and don't enjoy hobbies. In this regard, you are different from other people and it is not important to you. Congrats and don't feel you have to be someone else just because. Generally, I'd like to think that if an adult does not want a hobby, other adults can respect and understand that. But some people are stubborn, so if the attempted interventions bother you, there is always the simple option of lying to them about a boring hobby that will make them feel like they've done their good deed for the day and leave you alone. Of course, don't be surprised if people who do care about their hobbies then don't have as much in common with you. And you might change your mind one day, about how much work with no play you are willing to tolerate...

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I was talking to one of my best friends about the prospect of getting a PhD. His response was something like this:

The best thing about being in a PhD program is getting to really dive into a single area, and focus and just that, for a few years. You'll probably never have that opportunity again in your life.

Okay, so some scientists have other hobbies and interests, that's great. Were they pursuing them intensely during their PhD program? That might be a different kettle of fish, and in need of more specific data.

I would recommend: Follow the routine that works for you and feels natural. Some people never find even that, so you should count yourself as fortunate. Yes, proper nutrition and exercise is a must, you need to find some way to work that in. If you're hyper-focused on one topic (for now), people should respect that.

Be skeptical of, and don't try to hold yourself to, some anecdotal "famous scientist" behavior; those stories likely get passed around because they are novel and unusual. In many cases they may have other resources (money, family, connections) that make it easier to maintain academic and outside interests than normal. In other cases the stories may be inflated "tall tales" told to build up the brand and mythologize the person in question.

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7

Your work-life balance is, well, yours and nobody else's. It isn't measured in hours per day, or how many hobbies you have, or how many parties you go to. It also is likely to change over the course of your life, as your life situation changes.

As a grad student, I loved my work. The experiments that I did required long runs on equipment at an industry lab partner. The available time was weekday nights, and all weekend. But I didn't work all weekend long - almost every weekend I took a day off, drove up to a well-known climbing place, met up with friends and spent the entire day climbing. Being outdoors for a day, focused on the hear-and-now of climbing and being with friends, was a good work-life balance.

Now, years later, I still love what I do at work. However, with a wife and kids I make sure that I spend plenty of time with them on evenings and weekends, and take all of my vacation (now about 7 weeks/year all told). I don't climb anymore (my strength-to-weight ratio is not as favorable!), but still am happy to head out backpacking and whatnot (the plan to spend 6 weeks driving to the Arctic ocean this summer with my son was, sadly, a victim of Covid). I think my work-life balance is just fine.

If you are happy and productive, don't worry about what other people think. But, be bluntly honest with yourself - if you feel a need to get away from your research for a while then do it.

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5

Keep an eye on your mental health. Spending so much time on your own keeps you inside your own head. A friend of mine developed paranoia at one point by simply ignoring everything around him. Just check in with yourself every so often to see if your thinking is still straight. Remember the movie https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Beautiful_Mind_(film) ? Don't be scared by this warning but if others start to wonder about odd facets of your behaviour then it is worth stopping and considering if they could be right.

As for a hobby, the best one I have ever found when working intensively is going for a walk. You can carry on thinking but you are getting oxygen, exercising, and allowing your body to recover. I have a dog now so she reminds me when it is time to walk. However you can equally set a timer on your phone to go off at regular intervals - say every half hour for a round-the block walk, or once every hour for a two-block walk. On the way drop in at a local cafe and get to know the staff. Chat about inconsequential things briefly but then get to work while drinking your tea/coffee.

Human contact is important because research can be very lonely. However there is no need to go overboard and join a club.

P.S. Short-term bouts of intense working are fine but three solid years while doing a PhD is too much for brain and body without changing the scenery at least a little.

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  • +1 for walks! Exercise, relaxation, and optionally no-pressure thinking time in one. – Noldorin Aug 6 at 20:18
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Work-life balance is a useful concept as an approximation of what works for the average person. But it’s a concept that’s mostly relevant for people for whom “work” is a concept that’s very distinct from the rest of “life”. And it sounds like you may be one of those very lucky people who enjoy their “work” so much that it becomes essentially the same as a hobby - something you are so passionate about that at times you like doing it more than anything else.

Well, I think I know the feeling, because I’m also such a person. While I do have quite a lot of hobbies, sometimes long periods go by when I enjoy my work so much I only “work” from moment I wake up until I go to sleep, and I start feeling guilty about neglecting my “hobbies”. At the same time, I realize how lucky I am to be paid to do what I love. Over time I’ve come to realize that for me, there simply is no boundary between “work” and “hobbies”; to me they are pretty much the same thing, at least for a large part (math research) of what’s considered “work”.

So I think your friends are basically wrong. Hobbies are good not because they will make you a more successful academic, but because they make you a more interesting person and can develop you in directions that are orthogonal to your academic work. In a sense they let you exercise different parts of your brain and expand your horizons in ways that work won’t. But that has little to do with an academic career. I think there are some mathematicians who are extremely successful precisely because they don’t care about anything other than math and spend their entire lives just thinking about their research. So you could very well succeed with such an approach if it suits your personality and interests.

At the end of the day, you need to decide what you’re optimizing for. If you’re optimizing purely for career success, your current approach may well be optimal. If you’re optimizing for overall happiness, you’d probably want to think about investing time in things other than work, like friends, a romantic life, and yes, maybe also some fun hobbies (which incidentally can help with the friends and romantic life part).

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    While it can be liberating to have no boundary between work and life if you don't need one, it can also cause great suffering if you need one. Unfortunately, there is an ideological narrative that leads many knowledge/creative workers in particular to delude themselves into a "passion" that is nothing more than internalized exploitation. Who needs a decent wage and sound working conditions when you can just follow your dreams. – henning -- reinstate Monica Aug 7 at 13:21
  • @henning yes, people delude themselves in all sorts of ways. For some it’s as you describe, while others delude themselves into thinking they need to have some kind of cookie cutter life with a dog, hobbies, the perfect work-life balance, etc. Yet others are deluded into thinking money is the most important thing and that if you aren’t paid a lot you’re a victim of “internalized exploitation”. So perhaps we should acknowledge that different people need/want/are made happy by different things. I spoke of my own experience, others will speak of theirs and OP can decide what works for them. – Dan Romik Aug 7 at 14:26
  • (And as I said I actually have many hobbies myself, which I find extremely rewarding.) – Dan Romik Aug 7 at 14:29
  • sure, different people have different needs. Your answer might work for OP, who apparently enjoys his work and seems to believe he needs to pick up a hobby because that's what people do. Regarding money, however, if you have a family and work as adjunct on serial fixed-term contracts, this need is not a delusion, and passion doesn't pay the bills. – henning -- reinstate Monica Aug 7 at 14:38
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    @henning agreed, some people are genuinely exploited. I see where you’re coming from. OP should beware of the ideological narrative you mentioned, as well as its reverse. The healthiest is to think for yourself and not blindly buy into anyone else’s ideology. – Dan Romik Aug 7 at 14:44
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When you do a Ph.D, I think one of the main challenges is that you always try to figure out some solutions for your methodological/theoretical questions you try to answer.

Sometimes, when you are really stuck for many days on a problem (a proof for example), you may lose your perspective since you are inside the problem. You may miss little trivial details that may help you to make a proof. At that point, having a hobby is helpful. After spending some time on your hobby and coming back to your work would probably give you a fresh perspective. So you could be even more productive for your research with a hobby.

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The concept of having a "life" varies by individual. Ultimately, you must decide how you define "life", rather than trying to copy what other people think "life" should involve. If you enjoy your work so much that you gladly find it to be almost coterminous with your "life", that is a great and enviable place to be, and you should ignore other people's admonishments about "work-life balance" (having said that, you should, of course, still ensure that you have enough sleep and exercise, and eat a healthy diet).

Few people are so fortunate, and even fewer manage to sustain this happy state for very long (after PhD, most scholars have to confront the tedious administrative realities of finding an academic job and, if they get one, discharging all the irritating bureaucratic demands). The notion of "work-life balance" as a conflict between two different sides has arisen as a coping mechanism for the majority of people who do not find their work sufficiently fulfilling to be the sole constituent of a good "life".

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There are certainly benefits to having a good work/life balance. Having downtime from work can help avoid "burning out" later on. Social interaction is good for mental health. Physical activity is good for physical (and mental) health.

However, having a hobby which you basically treat like another kind of work isn't necessarily going to be beneficial. And from your post, that sounds like what you have been going for. You should be looking for ways to switch off, not just change channel! Try to avoid the idea that your hobby needs to be productive, and look for activities that involve spending time with other people and/or outdoors. What do your friends do with their time off?

I think the Simpsons had the right idea.

Erin: You like hanging out too?
Lisa: Well, it beats doing stuff.

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What's a work life balance?

On a more serious note: Typically filling life with work longterm is not a healthy choice. Having said that, taking the following quote from your post:

My life since starting my PhD has can typically be summed up as waking up early, getting to the office about 7AM and working on some part of my research until 5PM before going home to study some more theory. I adore my field - I really think I'm the luckiest person ever for having the opportunity to work on such interesting problems.

You are stating that you are happy working continuously on the topic and that is quite normal when you enjoy a topic, even more so in academia. - Having said that, success in academia is not necessarily tied to long hours. Some successful people worked regular hours too.

I think as long as you work on it because you want to, it will be fine. - If you work long hours because you feel any kind of pressure to do so, it is NOT fine and will be damaging.

I'd also ask if you feel happy to do something else and drop to "normal hours" if you found something more interesting. If yes, you should be fine.

And just on a personal note: Those who have dealt with IT know the feeling of having something to work on/resolve and suddenly it is the middle of the night as time flies by - this happens.

One more comment: There are also good answers in other contributions, such as the "change of tack" from research PhD to permanent academic post. Having said that, nearly pure research posts exist - often one temporary contract after another from funding proposals. Stressful, but 100% research.

Edit: Hobbies? Well, I did spend some time on photography during my academic years but also stopped for several months? A year? In between. As others have said, there is no need for hobbies - you might not have found yours yet. So what? Maybe you could also do something along your research subject? Rendering graphics? Raytracing? - Code mathematical software? Try, see if it sticks or not. - If it doesn't, it is fine.

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At the very least, I think it is important to pick up some sort of physical activity as a "hobby". It will help keep you in good physical and mental health in the long run.

Also, from personal experience, it should not interfere with your technical thoughts. During my phd (quantum computing), many good ideas on how to solve the technical problems I was facing came about while I was working out.

For everything apart from physical activity, there are no real guidelines, just do what feels ok for you.

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However, I often get comments about my work-life balance being unhealthy.

Come to work in my country, Japan, and you won't be getting such comments.

Jokes aside, I share the view that if you enjoy your work and are passionate about it, you don't need to balance your work, in the first place. The only valid reason to pursue an academic career is when you are so passionate about doing research that it is a kind of hobby for you. Academic jobs are very demanding in terms of effort and qualifications and are not well paid, so if you just want to make money, build a career in a more financially rewarding field - IT, industry, banking, real estate, or anything of the kind. And still, I'd recommend choosing a job you are passionate about, not just the highest paying job you can get.

Since you say you think you're "the luckiest person ever for having the opportunity to work on such interesting problems," it doesn't seem that you have any real problem. If you enjoy your work, just keep enjoying it, and if anyone tells you that your work-life balance is unhealthy, respond that what is unhealthy is to have a job that needs to be balanced. And you can refer to the fact that the life expectancy for Japan, where people tend to work longer hours than in the USA or Germany, is higher than the life expectancies for those two countries. And you can ask your advice-givers whether they would advise a famous painter such as Salvador Dali or Pablo Picasso to get a hobby, too. Painting is their hobby. And your hobby is research. Research is to a large part about creativity - just like painting is.

Furthermore, research work is really multifaceted. To be a good researcher, you have to be a good manager, a good writer, a good negotiator, a good orator, and so on. The tasks you have to do greatly vary in their nature. You make measurements, do calculations, write research articles, arrange collaborations, travel to conferences, give talks, discuss research findings with your colleagues, write persuasive grant proposals, come up with hypotheses to explain things, etc., so you frequently change your activity. And a change is as good as a rest. Why would you need a separate hobby then?

The very reason why people need a hobby separate from their work is that they are so bored at work that they need to spice up their lives and fulfill the urge to fulfill their creative potential. But if your job already brings you everything you need in terms of self-realization, you don't need a separate hobby. Your job already brings you everything. And that's how things should be.

I humbly hope that my answer will help you and other users look at the problem from a somewhat different perspective as compared to other answers.

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  • I agree with the gist of this answer, but while people in Japan may live longer, they report less life-satisfaction than Germans. Reference – henning -- reinstate Monica Aug 7 at 14:43
  • @henning--reinstateMonica : Life satisfaction is a weird parameter to use to compare countries, for it's absolutely normal to have a list of things you are not satisfied with and working on. I believe that one should have own emotions balanced, and i think that excessive joy on a permanent basis is something rather abnormal. And couldn't German life satisfaction be influenced by regular beer consumption? :) – Mitsuko Aug 7 at 15:54
  • it may seem so, but there's a whole discipline dealing with "happiness research". Here's a widely cited international comparative study. Anyway, I'm certainly not against a nice cold beer, but in winter time a hot sake does warm the heart as well. – henning -- reinstate Monica Aug 7 at 15:58
  • Without reading a lot in depth, I suspect comparing happiness across countries quickly becomes an esoteric pseudoscience rather than rigorous research. - The OECD better life index will have you believe that people in the UK are happier than in France... oecdbetterlifeindex.org/topics/life-satisfaction - Yet just about everything seems worse in the UK than in France if we are looking at the global societal/political context that impacts life. Add to that, that in some countries it is accepted to complain, while in others you just keep quiet and accept it. – DetlevCM Aug 9 at 6:29
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You're fine. Key is to be aware that you're doing what you want---and to be aware that as time passes, what you want will change. A new-ish PhD student often wants to eat all the candy in the store. Complex analysis, yum! If the candy gives you indigestion, pay attention. But as long as it's all delicious, gobble away.

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